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Robert M. "Smoke" Shilling Jr., a veteran Baltimore broadcaster who made covering fires a specialty, dies

Robert "Smoke" Shilling Jr.
Robert "Smoke" Shilling Jr.

Robert M. "Smoke" Shilling Jr., a longtime Baltimore broadcaster who had worked as a reporter and news director at WCBM-AM for nearly two decades and later was the managing news director at WBFF-TV, died Sunday of lung cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.

The longtime Timonium resident was 75.

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"First as an award-winning reporter and later as news director at WCBM, Bob was a consummate professional. Some of his best reporting was during breaking news events," Dave Humphrey, a former WCBM news anchor and longtime friend who worked at the station from 1968 to 1985, wrote in an email.

"He was a friend and mentor to many young journalists. During the 1970s and early 1980s when the AM dial was the medium for radio listeners, Bob directed a WCBM news staff that produced the kind of compelling and informative news radio we will never hear again," wrote Mr. Humphrey, who lives in Hilton Head Island, S.C. "Those were the great Baltimore radio days when WCBM, WCAO, WFBR and WBAL were fiercely competitive in the news arena."

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"He was old-school and highly competitive, and he liked getting the story first but he wanted it right. He had high standards and did not want sloppy reporting," said Mark Miller, who worked with Mr. Shilling when he was news director at WBAL-AM.

"One time I was covering a fire at an ice cream factory, and I had calculated how many miles of hose the Fire Department had laid down," said Mr. Miller, who is now Howard County's public information officer. "He admired reporters who had that skill. He liked you painting word pictures, because radio is theater of the mind."

The son of Robert M. Shilling Sr. and Louise Shilling, Robert MacGregor Shilling was born in Baltimore and moved shortly after birth to Ocean City, N.J., where his parents operated a bed-and-breakfast.

He began his broadcasting career as a teenager in Atlantic City, N.J., where he worked as an unpaid announcer on WFPG, a radio station that broadcast from the famed Steel Pier.

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After graduating in 1959 from Ocean City High School, he returned to Baltimore and enrolled in the speech, drama radio and television course at what was then Baltimore Junior College.

While in college, he worked as a part-time news writer at WFBR-AM, then took a second part-time job in the WBAL-AM engineering department. After graduating, he worked full time on the night engineering shift and spent his days as a stringer for WBAL.

In 1966, he joined WCBM as a reporter and later became news director, a position he retained until it ended its news format in 1985.

He was news director at WBAL-AM from 1988 to 1990, when he was succeeded by Mr. Miller. Mr. Shilling was managing editor of WBFF-TV from 1990 to 2008, when he retired.

Mr. Miller said his former colleague was a walking repository of local news history. "It was like he had a lockbox in his head, and he loved sending you reminders about the anniversary of a big story," he said.

He said he went to the hospital last week to visit Mr. Shilling.

"He still talked about local news coverage and who he thought the good reporters are. We talked about the presidential campaign," Mr. Miller wrote in an email.

Mr. Shilling developed an interest in covering fires as a reporter and news director.

"I always got excited at fire alarms," he told William Hyder in a 1967 interview in The Sunday Sun. "Of course, I never thought I'd get paid for being excited."

Mr. Shilling filled his home with fire and police scanners in order to monitor fire calls. The radios were on 24 hours a day, wrote Mr. Hyder.

"In his time, he has been singed by fire, drenched by hoses and frozen by low temperatures, and has ruined more clothes than he can remember," wrote Mr. Hyder. "To minimize these hazards, he has bought himself a helmet, boots and what firemen call a turnout coat. He keeps his clothes handy to his bed at night."

"He got the nickname of 'Smoke' when he was a young reporter," said a son, Robert M. Shilling III of Los Angeles. "He had a knack for going on calls to big fires. He'd go deep into the event right on down to talking to the fire chief.

"Then smoke would start billowing and blowing and by the time he returned to the station, he smelled so bad that everyone in the business started calling him 'Smoke,' and it stuck."

A former lifeguard in Ocean City, N.J., Mr. Shilling never went to the beach without his scanner, and while taking in the seaside, kept one ear cocked to the chatter of the working lifeguards — just in case something happened.

"If you went out to dinner with Bob, he'd have a scanner with him," said Mr. Miller.

For the last six years until his death, he had been a media specialist with the National Fallen Firefighters Association in Emmitsburg.

Mr. Shilling was a past president of the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association and an at-large member of its board. During his 42-year membership, Shilling advocated in particular for a scholarship for journalism students and delighted in evaluating the entries of future reporters and presenting the prize at an annual convention.

"He really believed in bringing along the next generation into the business," said Mr. Miller.

A funeral will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.

He is survived by another son, John-Paul A. Shilling of Phoenix, Ariz.; and three grandchildren. Marriages to Joan Clark and Virginia Lee MacDermott ended in divorce.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

—frasmussen@baltsun.com

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